REVIEW: Meditate on a few iffy decisions in Retreat to Enen
Having struggled with my mental health for much of the last decade, I've been prescribed more than a handful of potential "cures" and relief from my darkest days. Medication, exercise, therapy, video games, and of course, meditation.
I tried most things thrown my way, to mixed results. Whatever I've got, it ain't easy to fix.
But the one thing I haven't given a fair shake is meditation. My mind is way too scattered, way too active to imagine sitting back in silence and just... breathing. Even as meditation apps and the like started to crop up, I just couldn't do it without getting antsy.
So when I first heard about Retreat to Enen, I thought I might have finally found my way to understanding the power of this practice: the semi open-world survival game sports a focus on being attuned to nature and makes meditation a mechanic just as important as eating and drinking.
And after my 10 hours exploring Enen and its surrounding islands, I think I get meditation — even if Head West doesn't really get survival games.
Just the Facts
Developer: Head West
Publisher: Freedom Games
Release Date: August 1, 2022
Review code provided by publisher.
One of the last things you see, as the game fades to black, is a thank you from lead developer Justin Hosford to his father. A thank you for instilling within him a love and respect for nature, providing the base of inspiration for Head West's debut release, Retreat to Enen.
During the Freedom Games Showcase at this year's (Not) E3, Hosford stated that he wanted to make a different kind of survival game. One that emphasized zen, meditation, and relaxation. He said, "If this little game can help even one person [be introduced to meditation], I think that it's reached its goal."
So did it? Yes and no.
Retreat to Enen starts in 3300 CE. After our world falls to chaos, war, and environmental destruction, nothing is the same. Those who survive have formed a new society, one dedicated to living hand in hand with nature and trying to understand it. These survivors find peace and enlightenment with nature and send community members out into the wild, to the island of Enen, as a sort of pilgrimage and rite of passage before they can return to society with the knowledge and understanding needed to ensure the past doesn't repeat itself, and to teach others what they've learned.
It's a simple setup, but one that intrigues from the outset. It paints a realistic picture of our planet's future with a relatively optimistic endpoint.
The pilgrimage takes place entirely on a small archipelago of islands, starting with the tropical island of Enen. Your goals are simple. 1) Survive on the island, taking from its natural resources only what you need to survive and no more. In other words, live in harmony with nature, both physically and spiritually. 2) Find the nine golden meditation domes embedded in the three islands (each with its own unique biome) and follow a guided meditation at each one, helping to instill within you a respect for the land and a better grasp on your place in the natural order.
Once you've done that, you are able to return home and share everything that you've learned with your community.
An example of Retreat to Enen's guided meditations.
With such clear-cut goals, it definitely stands apart from the usual survival game. But it's within the core survival mechanics that Enen fumbles the experience.
Retreat to Enen has all the things you'd expect from your typical open-world survival game: meters to maintain (hunger, thirst, and the unique spirit meter we'll talk about later), crafting menus for tools and base-building, and tons of resources to pick up in the world. But none of it actually feels any good.
For one, this relaxing game ends up incredibly stressful when played the way the developer intended. Even with patches released since launch to help reduce the drain time, your meters require near-constant maintenance, especially in the beginning when you're finding your footing and lacking the resources to stock up on food, drink, and healing tonics. Those tonics are necessary, because drink from the wrong body of water (without boiling it first) or take the wrong step near a snake (which are very hard to see coming) and you'll end up with a health-siphoning disease or poison.
To make the tonics that will cure you, you'll have to wander out — sick, poisoned, and all — to find rare flowers. On the way, you might just get stung again, or gain a pathogen from an unclean drinking water source, which will just put you even further on your back foot. You might finally find your final flower... only to find out you are over-encumbered, thanks to a non-upgradeable and surprisingly small carry limit.
"Despite the admirable mission statement, almost everything in Retreat to Enen works against its supposed purpose."
When you finally get yourself healed, you might just notice that your spirit meter is drained, too. Meant to represent your spiritual and emotional health, the spirit meter can only be restored by meditating at meditation domes scattered across the islands. You'll need to keep this stat up, because if it gets too low, your physical health will begin to drain.
I felt iffy about this, to say the least. I understand the meaning behind it — that your spiritual and mental health is just as important as your physical health and when you neglect it, your physical health can suffer — but it feels harsh and contradictory in a game that is meant to evoke peace and mindfulness. Especially when you consider that death means a complete loss of progress up to your last save, something you can only do at shelters or beds. I found out the hard way when, after my first hour or so in the game, I fell off a high point to my death and lost everything I had accomplished, forced to start again fresh.
My long-winded hypotheticals have a purpose, I swear. I've outlined a scenario that can and probably will happen again and again throughout your first few hours with the game. And while, of course, it gets better the more you progress and stock up on supplies, it left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth.
Despite the admirable mission statement, almost everything in Retreat to Enen works against its supposed purpose. This (jargon alert) ludonarrative dissonance is so off-putting that even the game's best aspects pale in comparison.
Before we move on to the good, as slight as it ended up being, let me collect a few lingering complaints:
Combat is broken. Killing a snake (when you can actually identify one in the landscape) is a futile affair of swinging your spear around, waiting for the hitboxes to align. Ranged combat is not much better, as your shots will miss 90% of the time.
Item storage is a bit odd, as you actually physically drop them into storage containers you craft, or directly onto the ground. Sometimes dropping an item makes it just... disappear. Other times, the physics of each object sends things flying.
Despite the focus on meditation and its power, you are able to skip all meditations within 30 seconds of starting them. I understand allowing players to decide how they wish to engage, but then, why make spirit and meditation such a focal point if you can bypass this core focus of the game?
It's truly a disappointment that so many of the things baked into Retreat to Enen's design stand counter to the core values that Head West intended. That said, the team has taken the critiques thus far to heart, and they've been actively patching the game since launch. Even so, these issues run deep.
So, what does Retreat to Enen get right?
The first thing that is immediately apparent is Retreat to Enen's natural beauty. From the tropical island you start on, to the dense redwood forest of the Valley of Giants, and finally, the great blanketed white landscapes of The Great North, the game features some incredibly picturesque landscapes.
Lush, flowing natural environments feel alive as you wander through them. Light shafts peek through the dense trees, through the slits in a plant's leaves. Rain pelts the ground and the sound of Enen's natural wildlife never leaves you feeling alone.
Head West nails the look and feel, allowing you to feel immersed in the natural world, or at least a likeness of it — a critical resource for wellness that, unfortunately, not everyone has access to. And even with a focus on photo-realism, which isn't usually my vibe, the beauty can't be denied. Hosford talked about the handcrafted nature of the game's three biomes, and how they chose to build each island from the ground up rather than rely on procedural generation. Their artists should be applauded, because the islands are beautiful.
With such natural beauty surrounding you, Enen does at least accomplish one of its goals. Wandering through these lands is genuinely calming. Accompanied by the aforementioned animal sounds and a lightly used but highly effective soundtrack from Hosford himself (who has a background as a composer), it is impossibly easy to lose focus and find yourself just vibing in the wilderness.
This aura of calm carries over, of course, to the meditation itself. There are some solid mindfulness moments at play, whether you're following the basic meditation domes' "breathing bubble" system — a familiar sight for any mindfulness app users — or the golden domes' guided meditations, with beautiful vistas set out in front of you and a soft-spoken guide helping you expel the stress in your life through breathing exercises.
Framing the usual meditation format within a game setting made it more approachable. With how stressful the rest of the game ended up being, the meditation genuinely felt like a reward. For me, it was effective where everyday meditation had never been before. But even with the ability to turn off all hostile animals — a nice accessibility and difficulty option — it still feels like the rest of the experience is a lot to go through for the prize of meditation.
After completing the game, you're allowed to freely explore each biome and continue surviving as you please. However, Enen is simply begging for what other games would call a "creative mode," an option to turn off all survival meters and be allowed to calmly enjoy the island and build to your heart's content.
Nothing in Retreat to Enen is free from qualifying statements. The good elements are good in spite of other things. The bad is so much worse in comparison to other, better survival titles. And in between, there are a whole lot of minor disappointments that, if done right, could have helped the good outweigh the bad.
For example, the game promotes exploration with supply drops hidden across the map and each of the golden meditation domes tucked in hidden nooks and crannies. Finding your way is difficult, and the only tool you have to help is a static map, one that does not track your location and is very minimally detailed, leading to a vague sense of direction as you explore.
With open-world games holding your hand more firmly than ever in recent years (Elden Ring excluded, of course), it's a welcome addition and a refreshing take, especially in a survival game. You have to use your wits and overcome your limitations to find your way. But in a game that presumes to be relaxing, it again feels counter to the game's core ethos — not to mention contradictory to the fact that your character is packing advanced tech in nearly every other capacity. I wasted hours and in-game days crawling through the forests to find some of these golden meditation domes, which ended in exasperation instead of calm.
Even the game's length stands in this weird middle ground. If you just tunnel in and focus on "finishing the story" and experiencing the game's nine gold dome meditations, you could honestly finish the game in 4 to 5 hours. This again could be refreshing compared to other seemingly unending, massive survival games. But it also makes it seem fruitless to engage with the survival and base-building mechanics.
It all adds up to this odd package of mismatched mechanics and morals that never reach any sort of harmony, despite Head West's attempts at creating internal harmony for its players.
Retreat to Enen requires you to fully give yourself over to its experience to enjoy it. It requires you to go full zen, to release all the stressors, to breathe out all the negative energy that the game places in your lap and enjoy only the good.
But sometimes in life, you can't do that. Sometimes you have to face the negatives and accept them. Take them and learn a lesson for the future. And that's what I hope Head West does, because Retreat to Enen proposes some ideas worth honing.
video games are good and Retreat to Enen is . . . OKAY. (5.5/10)
+ admirable morals, stunning realistic landscapes, and if you're able to give yourself over to it, a calming meditation experience
- for those who can't, it's an experience that consistently fights itself with unwieldy survival mechanics, a constant pushback against the zen vibes, and its issues run very deep
Thanks for reading this video games are good review. If you're interested in learning more about our review rubric, click here! Wanna join our Discord, where you can discuss reviews and get early views at upcoming articles? Click here! Thank you for supporting video games are good.